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A new method of dating cave art called "U-series" has pushed the date of the oldest cave art, a single red dot in a Spanish cave, to a minimum of 40,800 years ago. U-series dating is based on the fact that calcite (calcium carbonate found in stalactites and stalagmites) contains trace amounts of uranium-238, which decays to thorium-230. The ratio of thorium-230 to uranium-238 can provide a date for when the calcite was laid down. An English team of dating experts took samples from the calcite overlaying cave art in 11 caves in northern Spain; since the calcite was laid on the paintings, its age can be used to deduce that minimum age for the painting. Since 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals inhabited Europe, and Homo sapiens was just arriving, the finding raises the possibility that Neanderthals painted the red dot. The red dot was found among other cave art, mostly handprints. But the date falls a bit short of a confirmation that Neanderthals were cave artists.

Did Neandertals Paint Early Cave Art?

on 14 June 2012

Who made these paintings? A new technique for dating cave art pushes the earliest works back to at least 41,000 years ago and raises the possibility that Neandertals were responsible for some of it.
Credit: Pedro Saura; (bottom left) Rodrigo De Balbin Behrmann

The basic questions about early European cave art—who made it and whether they developed artistic talent swiftly or slowly—were thought by many researchers to have been settled long ago: Modern humans made the paintings, crafting brilliant artworks almost as soon as they entered Europe from Africa. Now dating experts working in Spain, using a technique relatively new to archaeology, have pushed dates for the earliest cave art back some 4000 years to at least 41,000 years ago*, raising the possibility that the artists were Neandertals rather than modern humans. And a few researchers say that the study argues for the slow development of artistic skill over tens of thousands of years.

Figuring out the age of cave art is fraught with difficulties. Radiocarbon dating has long been the method of choice, but it is restricted to organic materials such as bone and charcoal. When such materials are lying on a cave floor near art on the cave wall, archaeologists have to make many assumptions before concluding that they are contemporary. Questions have even arisen in cases like the superb renditions of horses, rhinos, and other animals in France's Grotte Chauvet, the cave where researchers have directly radiocarbon dated artworks executed in charcoal to 37,000 years ago. Other archaeologists have argued that artists could have entered Chauvet much later and picked up charcoal that had been lying around for thousands of years.

Now in a paper published online today in Science, dating expert Alistair Pike of the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom and archaeologist Paul Pettitt of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, together with colleagues in Spain, applied a technique called uranium-series (U-series) dating to artworks from 11 Spanish caves. U-series dating has been around since the 1950s and is often used to date caves, corals, and other proxies for climate and sea level changes. But it has been used only a few times before on cave art, including by Pike and Pettit, who used it to date the United Kingdom's oldest known cave art at Cresswell Crags in England.

U-series dating takes advantage of the fact that calcite, the form of calcium carbonate in stalactites and stalagmites, contains trace amounts of radioactive uranium-238, which decays to form atomic elements including radioactive thorium-230. By measuring the ratio of thorium-230 and uranium-238, daters can estimate how long ago the calcite was laid down.

Using a blade or an electric drill, the team took 50 small samples from calcite that directly overlay either paintings or engravings in 11 caves in northwest Spain. Because the calcite overlays the paintings, it must be younger than the art, and so yields minimum ages. In a few cases, the team also dated calcite underneath artworks, thus creating a "sandwich" that generated maximum and minimum dates.

The results, if correct, include the earliest ever reported date for cave art: A red disk from El Castillo Cave, on the Pas River in northern Spain, clocked in at a minimum of 40,800 years. The disk, part of a larger composition that includes dozens of other disks and some 40 stencils of human hands, could be older, depending on how soon after it was painted the calcite layer formed. Other early dates include 37,300 years for a hand stencil at Tito Bustillo Cave and 35,600 years for a club-shaped image at the famous Altamira Cave, whose artworks were previously thought to be only about 17,000 years old.

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Oldest confirmed cave art is a single red dot

As cave art goes, it doesn't look like much: a single red dot, hidden among a scatter of handprints and drawings of animals on the wall of El Castillo cavein northern Spain.

But this red dot is at least 40,800 years old, making it the oldest known piece of cave art in Europe. At that time modern humans had only just migrated out of Africa, raising a tantalising possibility: that the dot was drawn by a Neanderthal. If that's the case, our extinct cousins may have had the rudiments of written language.

While cave art is common throughout western Europe, the oldest dated examples are those in Chauvet cave in France, which have controversially been dated to between 35,000 and 30,000 years ago.

But many other pieces of cave art have never been dated. Standard radiocarbon dating only works when paintings were made using organic material like charcoal. Anything drawn with minerals like ochre, or just carved into the wall, can not be carbon dated.

Uranium age trick

Now, Alistair Pike of the University of Bristol, UK, and colleagues have come up with a partial solution that will put a minimum age on some previously un-datable paintings.

As water seeps through rock and dribbles over the cave surface, it leaves behind a thin layer of calcite. This contains radioactive uranium, which slowly decays into thorium at a known rate.

So, by measuring how much uranium has decayed into thorium, Pike figured he could determine the age of the calcite layer.

If the calcite overlays a painting, it will provide a minimum age for that art.

In El Castillo, the red dot lay beneath the oldest dated calcite layer. Others came close: a red hand shape on the same wall was at least 37,300 years old and a symbol that looks like the number "1" in the nearby Altamira cave was at least 35,600 years old.

The result makes these drawings the oldest known pieces of cave art in the world – so far. Pike is already examining art in other European caves to see if he can top his latest find.

Some Australian rock art apparently depicts birds that have been extinct for 40,000 years, but most of it has not been chemically dated.

Neanderthal artist?

The Spanish cave art is so old that it may not have been painted by modern humans. Homo sapiens arrived in Europe sometime between 42,000 and 40,000 years ago – right around the minimum age of the art. Yet Neanderthals had already been on the continent for tens of thousands of years. So who did the painting?

The fact is we don't know. If modern humans were the artists, they either brought the practice with them from Africa – but left little trace of it there – or developed it incredibly quickly once they reached Europe. Pike suggests that humans changed their culture rapidly when they started competing with the Neanderthals. Cave art, he says, was a by-product of these changes. "That would explain why it happened so quickly," he says.

The other possibility is that the paintings were done by the Neanderthals. The paintings could have been made thousands of years before they were covered in calcite. If so, Neanderthals are the only plausible candidates.

That might not be such a stretch: Neanderthals used crayon-like pigments to draw on themselves and even made simple jewellery. And there is other, indirect evidence that European caves were adorned around the time modern humans got there. Earlier this year, a team led by José Luis Sanchidrián Tortiof the University of Córdoba, Spain, claimed that cave paintings found in the south of the country, near Malaga, were over 42,000 years old and therefore drawn by Neanderthals. The team dated nearby charcoal pigments, not the paintings themselves, and have not published their data.

There's a third possible explanation, says April Nowell of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. Neanderthals may have mimicked the drawings produced by modern humans, without understanding what they meant.

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Doone and I posted this in here too: http://atheistuniverse.net/group/thenakedape

Oops, sorry I missed it. I thought it deserved its own discussion. 

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